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Ten keys to a productive interview

June 5, 2014

By Dan Van Slambrook, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

So you’ve invested time into reviewing the huge stack of resumes if front of you.  You’ve read past the fancy graphics and fluffy verbiage, focused on responsibilities rather than titles, avoided the non-job related information, and come up with a short-list of candidates who appear the best suited ones in the bunch.  Now what?

Time for next steps—the interview.

If you are at least a little bit intimidated at the thought of conducting an interview, you are not alone.   But as one of the most key stages of the selection process, it is important to get comfortable with having this conversation.  Following these guidelines can help raise your confidence level and lead to more productive interviews—and more importantly, better hiring decisions:

1. Prepare
The interview should be treated like any other important meeting—the more prepared you are, the better positioned you will be to have a good discussion with the candidate.  As part of your preparation:

  • Re-read the resume so that it is fresh in your mind when the interview begins.
  • Prepare at least some of the questions in advance rather than trying to think of all of them as you go.  Mentally review the major subject areas you want to cover. 
  • If more than one interviewer will be involved, coordinate ahead of time which role each will play (who will lead the conversation, what questions/topics will be covered by whom, etc.)

2. Break the ice
It is important to set the candidate at ease as much as possible, understanding that he or she may  be nervous or uncharacteristically reserved.  Candidates who are comfortable will open up in the conversation, which will provide a better view into who they really are.  To help a candidate relax:

  • Take a few minutes (emphasis on few) for small talk.
  • Have water available for the candidate to drink—a dry mouth is common for someone in the interview chair.
  • Introduce others in the interview, explaining everyone’s role in the organization.
  • In a group interview, try to arrange seating so that everyone is not directly across from the candidate (firing-squad style).

3. Focus on the answering the “Big Four”
Making a solid hiring decision requires answering four primary questions about a candidate. Listed below are the Big Four along with sample questions you can ask to get those answers:

  1. Is the candidate qualified?  “Tell me about a software implementation project that you’ve been personally responsible for.”
  2. Will he or she do the job if hired? “How did you perform against your sales objectives in your last job?”
  3. Will he or she fit in with the culture?  “Describe the kind of manager you feel you work best for.”
  4. Is he or she interested in the job?  “Tell me about your long-term goals and why you want to work here.”

4. Select high value, job-related questions
Prepare questions that have close ties to the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s) required to perform well on the job.You have limited time in the interview. Do not waste it asking about a candidate’s favorite color or what kind of animal they would choose to be. There are several kinds of questions—fact-based, situational and behavioral-based among the most common.A whole article could be written (and will be in a future edition) on the benefits and drawbacks of each. But suffice it to say that open-ended questions which ask the candidate to describe a specific situation they found themselves in and how they reacted to it will yield an answer closest to how he or she will likely handle that situation in the future.(See sample “Big Four” questions, above.)
5. Take note of non-verbal cues 
Much communication happens outside the conversation, and it begins the moment you shake the candidate’s hand.  Posture and tone of voice, for example, offer clues to a candidate’s true level of interest.
6. Avoid sailing into dangerous territory
One of the areas many managers are concerned about in conducting an interview is knowing what questions can and cannot be asked from a legal standpoint.  There are, of course, the major discrimination areas that should be avoided, such as age, disability, or national origin.  As a rule of thumb, only ask questions about job-related subject matter.  If a candidate offers information that is not-job related, avoid asking follow-up questions or even making note of the information provided.
7. Leave time for questions
Just as you are deciding if the candidate is a good fit for your organization, the candidate is deciding if the organization is a good fit for him or her. Invite the candidate to ask questions.
8. End on a positive note
Thank the candidate for his or her time.  Communicate your timeframe for decision making, and that someone will follow up on their status.
9. Close the loop
Regardless of how the interview went, ensure that someone follows up, indicating the status of his or her candidacy.  Even if the news is not positive, a candidate will prefer a timely update over being kept in limbo.
10. Follow “the Golden Rule”
Finally, keep this in mind:The person across the desk from you is not just a candidate for your specific opening. He or she may be a fit for some other role in the organization, even if not for yours.That person may be a potential investor, supplier, customer, competitor, or maybe even your future boss sitting there. A candidate treated respectfully—or carelessly–in the interview process will remember it (and tell their friends).

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